Most of us can recall, as children, waiting anxiously for a promised treat from a parent or grandparent. The classic 1972 experiment by Walter Mischel of Stanford University found that only one-third of children were able to delay for 15 minutes eating a single marshmallow, while left alone with it, in order to receive the two marshmallows promised by the researcher when he returned.
What does this experiment mean for us as parents? The short answer, probably, is not to give our kids treats too often or too quickly. A follow-up study in 1988 showed that “preschool children who delayed gratification longer were described by their parents as adolescents who were significantly more competent.” A second follow-up study, in 1990, showed that the ability to delay gratification also correlated to higher SAT scores. For sure, we want our children to grow up to be competent and do well in school.
The longer answer, of course, is more complicated, but it boils down to this: If as adults we have learned, or can improve our ability, to be comfortable with discomfort, and if we can both model and teach this skill to our children — in ways appropriate to their age — we are more like to be happy ourselves, and so are they.
Loss, struggle, and sadness are part of every life. Physical health problems, mental health issues, addictions, or economic privation affect almost everyone at one time or another, if not directly then through a family member. To better understand happiness, we have to look at its absence. Wordnik (wordnik.com) tells us that happiness is “… any state of being … in which pleasure decidedly predominates over pain, [however] happiness is … often expressive of that state of mind that triumphs over circumstances, finding material for contentment or even joy in that which might naturally produce deep unhappiness.”
If we can achieve a “state of mind that triumphs over circumstances,” we have a better chance to be well and happy. Dr. Margarita Alegria, a 2011 member of the Institute of Medicine, works on inequities in access to mental health care and, obviously, sees disadvantaged conditions that can lead to unhappiness. She finds, however, that people are “amazingly resilient and successful in working through many of the problems they experience. However, when people confront adversity after their resilience is depleted, they are more likely to experience unhappiness and a sense of being stuck.” In this case, seeking help and support, both professional and informal, can be life-saving. Alegria stresses how important it is for parents to “teach children that prolonged suffering is not healthy,” and to seek emotional support for themselves and for their children.
Parents have a unique position in a child’s life when it comes to modeling help-seeking behavior. Children see us at our best and our worst and at every dip and turn on the emotional rollercoaster ride that is parenting. We experience delight and deep happiness, to be sure, exhaustion and boredom at times, along with disappointment, fear, and heartache. If our children see us as capable and confident in reaching out to others when we need support, they are more likely to do the same.
Parenting demands flexibility, patience, and wisdom that few of us have when we hold our new babies, check their fingers and toes, look into their eyes for hints to the spirit, talent, and character of the people they will become. Our children raise us, in a sense, in that they can help us become the parents they need. We must help each other too. Especially in today’s world, with communications technologies that can link us instantly — by written word, image, and sound — with parents around the world, we have the opportunity and obligation to learn to support each other in becoming better parents.
Work with parents takes many forms. One is peer support, the approach of Parents Forum, a 20-year-old nonprofit organization with the mission to foster honest, respectful, and caring communications in families. The program’s eight original questions about family-life issues, along with its four tools of the trade — handy guide, feelings list, conversational formula, and a parenting-styles algebra lesson — help parents develop their own emotional awareness. This helps them better manage the day-to-day challenges of family life. The value of emotional awareness is, unfortunately, less well-recognized than it should be, as is the value of parenting education in general.
How can we more effectively raise these issues? Joining with others who are already active in this field is one place to start. Through his “Happiest Baby” and “Happiest Toddler” books and videos, Dr. Harvey Karp teaches parents how to listen carefully to their children and to model using words to express feelings. Since these skills can be taught — and are fundamental to achieving a happy family life — I would put parenting education at the top of the list of social services that promote both individual and collective well-being.
We can find allies for increased parenting education also among those involved in efforts to promote social-emotional learning in elementary and high school students. In this field, empathy is receiving special attention, since it is so glaringly absent in numerous incidents of bullying, many of which have had tragic consequences.
All parents want to prepare their children for healthy, happy, and successful lives. How do we begin, and, just as importantly, how do we keep on providing what our children need as they grow and change? A ready and abundant supply of marshmallows is clearly not the key to happiness, but can we teach our children how to be happy? Yes, but only indirectly. We can be patient with them. We can keep them active, and busy reading and learning. We can do our best to be grateful for the good people, enjoyable activities, and nice things in our own lives. If our children learn how to be patient and grateful from the way we live our lives, they will be prepared to find their own happiness.
Eve Sullivan is the founder of Parents Forum and author of “Where the Heart Listens: A Handbook for Parents and Their Allies in a Global Society.”